5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Jesse Alick

James Cromwell getting arrested while protesting a new NY power plant in 2015. He recently went to prison after refusing to pay fines related to the arrest. Photo Splash News.

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In the fiscally pinched New York theater, the whole notion of “free” seems oxymoronic: how can you have an art form perpetually beating the drums for local, state, federal and private funding yet have a group like the Subjective Theater Company (STC) brandishing the philosophy that theater should be free? We live in a world in which a persion like Chris Anderson can write Free: The Future of a Radical Price, a world in which Malcolm Gladwell can give a review to the book that basically reads “pooh.”

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Alick, who succeeded STC’s founding artistic director, Zachary R. Mannheimer, in 2007 (this is what he’s doing now), adheres to the company’s core philosophy without engaging in the to-free-or-not-to-free debate. Here’s an excerpt from the company’s website:

…to produce a wide range of politically and socially relevant theatre for free. STC is founded on the principles that art is not a commodity, that culture should be without class structures, that art is without boundaries, and that theatre should always be available to everyone. STC is guided by a philosophy of accessibility and the belief that theatre plays a vital role in the development of individuals and communities. STC is dedicated to cultivating an environment where quality theatre can exist for people of every economic and social background.

I’d argue that those sentiments are neither about free nor not free. There are costs involved, of course, and Alick does address them. But Alick addresses the value of STC’s work as well — and in ways that many other nonprofit theaters in New York might do well to consider.

Earlier this year, it was announced that STC would be one of the resident companies of Horse Trade Theater Group. Here is some information on the season now getting underway:

…STC will be opening a window onto the disenfranchised fringes of society. Spotlighting carpet-bagging stock brokers, clowns in prison, musicals on how to perform in blackface, and the zombies of gentrification, STC will offer a fun-filled riotous season jam packed with slapstick, satire, musicals…and will launch its newest division – STC Films! STC invites the world-wearied public to lick their wounds and enjoy a laugh.

STC will launch the 2009/2010 season with the world premieres of two original shorts that will run together, without an intermission (run time will not exceed a total of 80 minutes) at The Red Room for a limited 6 performances from September 8th-13th. September 8-12th will run at 8:00 pm, and one matinee will be held Sunday, September 13th at 3:00 pm. These plays are:

Ardor Doody: an original short play coproduced by Mighty Little Productions and written by Mighty Little’s Lucile Scott and STC’s Jesse Cameron Alick, to be directed by STC’s Steven Gillenwater.

In a cold prison cell, in an anonymous totalitarian country, two political prisoners debate guilt vs. innocence, happiness vs. productivity, honesty vs. betrayal, art vs. duty…all while wearing big clown shoes and rubber noses. Ardor Doody is a satirical comedy about two circus clowns and one mime fighting the government the only way they know how – but which one will have the last laugh?

Big Rock Candy Mountain: an original musical, with the book by STC’s Julia Holleman, music by STC’s Emmy award-winning Resident Designer, Lucas Cantor. Lyrics by Julia Holleman and Lucas Cantor.

Big Rock Candy Mountain: Inspired by the popular American standard of the same name, Big Rock Candy Mountain invites us into the world of a hedge fund manager and his wife as they ride the rails in search of jobs. Cushioned from any real hardship by their wealth, they lament their fate while trying to avoid the licorice handcuffs of the ineffectual SEC. Big Rock Candy Mountain is a biting musical satire about corporate bailouts and the eschewed realities of the wealthy.

In December of 2009, STC’s third production will be the world premiere of The Jim Crow Project (working title) where we invite the audience to join us for a marvelous, full-length musical instructional about the art of the minstrel show! Replete with comedy and pathos, mingled with tears and jokes and songs from antebellum America, reality television, and original instructionals like, “How to Identify the common Negro Coon”, and that ever popular game show – “Tom, Coon, Mulatto, Mammy or Buck!?”, The Jim Crow Project will explore minstrelsy, one of America’s original art forms in a fresh and modern way. Grab some blackface and come wash your racist soul clean and white! With Direction by Donya Washington, music and lyrics by Justin Levine, and book by Jesse Cameron Alick, the The Jim Crow Project promises to be an educational and entertaining time!

There’s also activity in STC’s “CoLab” and equally active reading and film series.

And now, 5 questions Jesse Alick has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
The smartest questions I receive inevitable arise from STC’s collaboratively written material. Our CoLab wing seems to be an incubator for material that makes our audiences heads tingle — having 6 actor-writers working on one show tends to do that! After our last CoLab show, Parallax, last May (which presented a number of theoretical narratives that one story could have taken), one audience member came up and was asked which version was the “right” one. Which I loved, because there is no “right” one. It provides a lot of satisfaction when audiences ask the question that is exactly the one we were trying to make them wonder about though!

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I’m a fairly religious individual and so my playwriting typically reflects that. I recently found myself in a heated talkback with some audience members about my play No Poem No Song. And to make a long string of questions short, they disagreed with how I was depicting their religion. To summarize, the question was something along the lines of “Why did you make my god like this in your play, when he’s clearly like this?” I think I answered in a pretty congenial manner, but really the answer I wanted to provide was: “Why is it that way? ‘Cause I say so. I’m the playwright — I am God!” But one must try to stay humble.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I was once asked if I was the house nigger for my theater company. I’m not even joking. I’d like to say that I responded with a quick, witty answer but I was just struck totally dumb. On the upside, my belated reaction has given me tons of material for this Jim Crow project we’re putting up in December, so silver linings all around…

4) The indie theater community has long admired the strong, unswerving sense of social consciousness that runs through STC’s work. Much of it, one might argue, was driven by the politics of the Bush era. Now that we’re supposedly in a more liberal era in this country, how does it affect Subjective’s outlook or work — or does it?
As much as I would hate for STC to be identified as a purely reactionary theater company, we certainly are a sociopolitical theater company, so it would be disingenuous to say that STC hasn’t been informed by the political climate of the last administration. STC was formed right at the dawning of the Bush era — three months after Sept. 11 and all the national and global upheaval that went along with those times. Frankly, however, I find today to be a much more exciting time to be producing sociopolitical theater. With the coming of Obama, we artists are faced with some important and challenging questions: What is our responsibility and duty now that we have someone we like in the White House? Do we stop being critical so we can support the guy? Do we really live in a liberal era now? Really? I mean, was it that simple? Elect a black man and the job is done? Is the fight over, then? I think you catch the vibe of where I’m going here — the fight is far from finished. We’re moving in a better direction, I’m sure of that — and now we have a chance of having our voices actually be heard. But gays are still second-class citizens, poverty and disease are still driving many countries to the edge of war, and don’t even get me started on the global economic crisis! And I still can’t hail a cab outside my office! As the saying goes, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”

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Nothing has absolved any of us, especially artists, of the responsibility to make sure the momentum of progress continues. From Ardor Doody, which explores the very question you raise (“what’s left to fight for when people receive everything they wish?”); to Big Rock Candy Mountain, which is a hilarious and scathing musical analysis of the economic crisis and who the real victims of it are; to The Jim Crow Project, which takes race by the horns and turns the mirror back on us so we can contemplate the person on the other side; to Handsome Zombies, which is a film analyzing gentrification in New York City — all of STC shows this season address issues desperately needing attention.

One should not stop fighting because a small battle was won: in the grander scheme of things, the Obama era is a drop of gold in a sea of silver. We now have the chance to create some art that has some real impact — to reshape not just theater, but this entire country. But the job is up to us. The time is not passed to change the world. The time is now.

5) STC’s mission is to “produce a wide range of politically and socially relevant theatre for free” and that, among other things, “art is not a commodity.” Can you speak in detail about how this plays out as a business model? Why do you feel it’s a sustainable business model over the long-term?
It’s funny, because I was about to ask you how charging money for theater is a sustainable business model over the long-term! I’m sure that it comes as no big surprise that STC’s philosophy of inclusion influences everything we do. One of the first artistic questions that we ask in the company when approaching new work is: Is this work immediate and who would producing this work serve? This is intrinsic to the business model of producing free theater. I want to produce theater for my colleges and for my broke friends, sure. But what gets me excited is producing a show and having the room full of homeless people. It’s about producing work for people who may not get the opportunity to be exposed to the art otherwise. And you’ve got to keep your eyes on that prize at all times. Achieving this goal is all about partnerships with the community you’re working in. Community is one of the cornerstones of what we do at Subjective. We build relationships. Not only do those relationships get the desired audience members in the house, but they also contribute massively to the sustainability of the company. When you’re producing free theater, it’s extremely important to know the people at theaters so they can give you good rates on rentals, know people at the bigger theaters around town so they can lend you some shop space, lend you a light or two, recommend an actor. You’ve got to form partnerships with theater companies, such as the residency that STC has with Horse Trade where they will be providing us space for our 2009-10 season. STC also has an active advocacy department that has been working with the League of Independent Theater and other organizations in their efforts to contribute to shaking money from the government for indie theater. All these partnerships take work to build, but they have the potential to pay off big in the short and long term. The trick of producing free theater is to figure out how much money you would have made off of ticket prices if you had charged, then either find that money somewhere else or use your relationships to lower costs to offset the free admission. This might sound challenging, but it’s an extremely organic process. In the long term, STC is only as sustainable as the relationships we build. We’re only as strong as the community we live in. But Leonard, we live in New York City! Man, we scarcely could have picked a better community than this!

6) In addition to being Subjective’s artistic director and an accomplished theater artist, by day you’re also the assistant to Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, and playwright Suzan Lori-Parks. Do you ever sit them down and say, “Hello? The indie theater community needs your involvement! Would you please get off your well-funded asses and start seeing more OOB productions!” Or would that be, er, the wrong approach?
There’s no such thing as a “wrong approach” but there certainly is an approach that may get you better answers! This all depends on what your goal is by asking the question in the first place is though, right? Buddhist critiques of the phrasing of the question aside, if I were hypothetically going to consider asking Oskar Eustis and Suzan-Lori Parks about doing more for the indie theater community I would first do a fact-check to see what they’re currently doing. If I were to do this, the first step would be to check in with their assistants to see if I could get the inside skinny on all this. Oh wait, I am their assistant. So go ahead and skip step one! I’m not going to get into listing what the two of them have done recently because I worry that would sound defensive, but I will say that I think we have to figure out what we’d really like to ask them to do. Is simply seeing more indie shows the solution? That seems a little self-serving and short term. I sense there are bigger things could be done. But we’ll never know what the consensus is until we, in our community, have a way of finding that consensus. We in the indie theater community need to figure out what the collective request is, then come to them speaking with one unified voice. Oskar and Suzan-Lori are the kind of people that if you sent them an email or called them up, they would answer. Seriously. I’m not blowing smoke. If we come to them with specific requests, we will get specific answers. They are both the kinds of people that believe in the great philosophy set forth by that classic movie New Jack City: “Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes I am!”

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  • Jesse’s play “No Poem No Song” is so super dense and rich. I hope it gets produced some day, because it’s really interesting stuff.

    This coming from an atheist.